Friday, March 11, 2011

A Kenyan Spring Break

As you can probably tell, life has gotten pretty busy here in Nairobi. Last weekend we got back from our spring break - a week spent in rural Kenya (Ukambani, to be precise, which is about two hours east of Nairobi). In a nutshell, the entire week was great, although it was most definitely a challenge, as well.

We left Nairobi early Saturday morning, and the bus ride to Machakos (where we then caught a matatu) was an adventure in and of itself. The bus was packed with people getting on and off, and the constant stream of hawkers selling everything from juice and fruit to bracelets and nail polish made it even busier. We actually ended up changing buses and sitting in the terminal before we took off, and I definitely sympathized with all the seasonal workers who use this means of transport to shuttle back and forth between Nairobi and their up-country homes. To spice up the trip even further, about halfway to Machakos we picked up some more passengers (although the bus was already full by this point), including an itinerant preacher who treated us to shouted Bible verses and loud "Amens!" for the rest of the trip.

On the way to Nyumbani Village, where the spent the night, we stopped at a very pretty little wood-working workshop which specialized in the carved rosewood and soapstone face masks Kambas are famous for making. We got to see some artists at work, which was cool. We then arrived at Nyumbani Village, an experimental village started by (I think) a Catholic bishop; the village pairs AIDS orphans with grandparents who have few or no children so that the orphans can be raised in a family setting rather than an orphanage. The village is also striving to be both self-sustainable and organic, so they have all sorts of cool initiatives going, including eco-toilets (waste is separated, processed, and used as fertilizer and to irrigate trees Nyumbani grows for a couple years then harvests and sells as a source of income). We only spent a night there, but I can tell you that the starts were amazing - I have never seen such a clear sky in my life! Chris, the American volunteer who was working in the village, took us out to a viewing platform, where we spent about an hour just gazing at the stars and enjoying being out of Nairobi.

Monday afternoon, after touring more of Nyumbani's projects, we were off to meet our homestay families. I and 5 other students were in the village of Kyua (CHOO-ah), and I'll admit that I was absolutely terrified waiting to meet my host family! When the father, Benson (who teaches at one of the village's primary schools) finally arrived, I found to my dismay that he didn't speak much English and had a hard time understanding my nasalized version of Swahili. He took me home to meet his family, which includes his wife Anne and sons Paul and John.

I spent most of the week with Anne, doing my best to help her around the house with the multitude of chores she does each day. I quickly found, though, that for the most part I was pretty useless, knowing how to do very few of the things it takes to run a rural Kenyan household, so I spent a lot of my time that week reading, enjoying the scenery, and just thinking. Some of the highlights of the week: Helping Anne on the shamba (farm) pull up dead corn husks to make room for the new planting they were about to do (I have never been more dirty or sweaty in my life!); using a choo (bathroom) infested with literally dozens of cockroaches; bathing every night in a bucket; using a flashlight because there was no electricity; praying over every evening meal (Benson and Anna are devout Catholics); traveling via motorbike (in a skirt, no less!) to the market on Wednesday; attending a prayer meeting with some of Anna's friends; and touring one of Kyua's primary schools Friday during their field day, being surrounded by massive crowds of little kids staring, half in fear and half in wonder, at us, the wazungu, who they had never seen before. We were mostly terrified of the way they closed in on us, unsmiling, so my friend Julia and I tried to lighten the tension (and our own discomfort!) by starting a game of volleyball with the kids, which ended well.

Overall my family was great. We had a difficult time communicating sometimes, given my limited Kiswahili, but Anna and I made ourselves understood for the most part, and when we didn't understand one another, a laugh or a shared smile sufficed. Living in such isolation was definitely a challenge, and it really made me re-think my dreams of joining the Peace Corps and withdrawing from the world for two years. Aside from the monotony of the days, the food, too, was super repetitive, and it will be a long, long time before I eat chapati (well, maybe not that long) or mbuzi (goat). I did really enjoy the traditional Kamba dish gatheri (rice and beans), though, and I can't complain about all the fresh fruits (so many mangoes!) and vegetables.

Saturday morning we all said good-bye to our families and started getting ready for the final party, at which we exchanged gifts and thanked our families one last time for welcoming us into their homes. Because I got there early, I got to watch some of the men slaughter the goats for the stew we ate later that day - definitely a traumatic experience, and one that made me consider (albeit only for a few hours) being a vegetarian. The local MP even showed up for the party, and between his rambling speeches, Tusker, and the traditional tribal dances the older women performed to entertain us (I even joined in with them for a bit!), the party was overall a good time, and I was sad to say good-bye to my family, who had been so patient and generous with me.

We spent Saturday night in a hotel in Kitui, a bit east of Ukambani, and I cannot even begin to describe just how nice having (hot!) running water was. If nothing else, rural week taught me that I will always, always, always prioritize running water over electricity.

Sunday morning, we took a small side trip to Nyambazi Rock (really more of a small mountain!); apparently if you walk around the rock 7 times, you switch genders. The rock is really too big to walk around 7 times, so instead we climbed to the top of it and were rewarded with some truly breathtaking views of the hills surrounding Kitui. It was a great spot to sit and reflect on all that had happened during rural week. After a picnic of good, old-fashioned PB and J sandwiches, we hopped into our rented matatu and headed back into the noise, congestion, and utter chaos of Nairobi. Though rural week was a great break from the hustle and bustle of city life, to be honest I was happy to be back in my apartment and sleeping in my own bed.

This past week I've also started my internship full-time (except for USIU classes Mondays and Wednesdays), but I think I'll save those stories for a later post - this one is probably running impossibly long already. Below are some pictures from rural week; my advice is to take in the beauty and serenity from afar, and enjoy your running water!

One of the grandmothers at Nyumbani Village. This woman was like 90, but she could still shake it!

My room in Kyua.

My homestay house! I love the paint.

All of their animals - mostly cows and sheep, and tons of chickens.

Tusker, their puppy. So adorable!

My homestay mama, Anna, and her mom and dad - and some random baby.

My homestay brother Paul, mom Anna, and dad Benson.

Me gettin' my tribal dance on.

At the top of Nyambazi Rock - the view was spectacular!

Seriously, more a mountain than a rock. But the view made the climb worth it.


  1. Wow Em Sounds like a great week. I'm sure all your experience on the farm will pay off with this years garden and next years deer season. I could use an assisant Gardener and Deer Skinner. Plus all the hot water and electricity you want. Love you Em.
    PS. Thanks for keeping your promise

  2. That ipod touch looks a little out of place in your room haha